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How To Start Actually Replying To Your Damn Emails

If your most used email opener is "Sorry for the delay!" you're not alone.

Posted on February 4, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

"Sounds good!" I type into my Gmail reply box and then hit Send. I'm grinning. It's a big dopey grin.

Unfortunately, my smile isn't related to the email at hand. It's my new "email grin," which, believe it or not, someone with a Ph.D. has prescribed for me.

"Act as if you LOVE replying to email for three minutes three times a day," Karissa Thacker, an executive coach for several Fortune 500 companies, had told me earlier. "Actually do your email while staying in an excited emotional state by smiling, or do it while listening to great music."

How have I reached the nadir of a licensed professional having to help me with my Gmail? The shameful truth is that I'm that person you and I both cannot stand: the chronic email nonresponder.

Here's how it usually goes: I'm out drinking with some colleagues after work. In between cheap beers, I sneak a look at my email underneath the bar.

What do you think of these Airbnbs? my friend Stef writes in reference to our upcoming vacation, sending over some links. Not wanting to disrupt my conversation with my colleagues, I put my phone back in my bag, telling myself I'll write back later tonight "when I'm at my computer."

But I don't. I don't write back. When I finally get home and sit in front of my laptop, I stare at the intimidating swath of unanswered emails with dread. I decide I'll "answer them tomorrow" and go to bed. Her message gets buried in an avalanche of others in my inbox, and five days later, I have to lead off my response with that most notorious of lies: "Sorry, I just saw this!"

I rarely ignore emails intentionally. Mobile is a huge part of the problem. When I check email on my iPhone, I'm usually out socializing or commuting, so I can't write back right away. Then I forget to reply until it's an embarrassing, excuse-demanding level of late. In an attempt to be polite in real life by not being that person at the bar who's absorbed in her phone, I end up being impolite digitally.

I mean, this is what I'm telling you right now. But if you pressed me on the real issue, I think my email avoidance is deeply rooted in my own insecurities. Over email, I might be asked to make a big decision that I'll later be held responsible for. I might have to have some sort of unpleasant conversation, or confront the pressure of having to articulate things in just the right way over a medium that tends to flatten any sense of nuance or tone. It's intimidating, and it's easier to shrug off until a fictional "later."

I've tried every cure for my email ghosting. I've flagged important messages with those bright red "follow up" labels, but it turns out I'm pretty good at ignoring those too. I've written out — with a pen! — lists of people I need to respond to, but I'll inevitably get caught up in internet stuff and forget to look at an actual piece of paper. I've tried replying immediately to every email I get, right down to annoying PR pitches and random letters from relatives. Nothing works.

So I approached Thacker to help me stop blaming other technology for the reason I was bad at this one.

Her first suggestion was the The Secret-esque principle I mentioned before:

Act as if you just love replying to email for nine minutes a day, and maybe you can fool yourself into thinking it's a jolly good time.

Setting aside a designated time to focus on email does sound productive. I get to work the next day and, like any stellar employee, immediately open my personal Gmail. I blast Kanye West and try to get all jazzy inside, like I'm on a sunny patio tucking into a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc. I see a new message from my former coworker Hillary. Love this. I type out a reply and send it. Email!

Over in my work inbox, I've got 18 new emails. There are a few PR pitches that I delete and a thread that doesn't really pertain to me that I mute. I write back to a few short messages, and you know what, I think I'm having a pretty decent time. But then I look over at TweetDeck and see that everyone's tweeting angrily about some article. I instinctively click over to read it, then jump on Gchat and debate its merits with co-workers. When I finally remember I'm supposed to be doing email, 20 minutes have passed. Fuck.

Since faking email thirst was a bust, Thacker suggests I follow the "RDF rule."

"The RDF rule is reply, delete, or file every single email immediately," she says.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

I've tried this "immediate follow-up" method before, and I always start out strong but crap out after a few hours. Still, I decide to give it another go. I get an email in my personal inbox from a friend about upcoming social stuff. I'm at work, and I know the email will take a little bit of time to reply to.

Here is where I usually would decide to table it, but instead I write back a quick, friendly message. I do the same with a few work emails. Replying to people 10 seconds after they've emailed me feels a bit lame ("Doesn't this girl have anything better to do than hover over her inbox?"), but it does make me feel very efficient and on top of things.

The insta-response thing is definitely an ideal habit to turn into a permanent lifestyle. Unfortunately, I always seem to drift back to my sluggish ways, which I did in fewer than 24 hours after trying it for the second time. I needed a longer-lasting solution.

The real cause of my problem, Thacker says, might not be simple forgetfulness. Maybe I'm just allergic to confrontation. How did she know? I start to sweat a little.

"You might avoid emails because you're nervous about not having the answer or the time to deal with it," she says. "It also can be that you're averse to dealing with the sender herself. You should try to figure out the specific cause for you if you're a person who struggles with no-reply behavior."

It's easier to blame my email forgetfulness on 2015. Now that our computer screens resemble flashing pinball machines, full of blinking IMs and Sisyphean social media timelines and the allure of sexy real-time discourse, email feels less fun. But Thacker's words ring true: Email is still the venue of choice for important conversations of many stripes, and in the face of actually dealing with Hard Things, it's easier to default to my favorite coping strategy of conflict avoidance by losing myself in Twitter or an IM instead.

Thacker says it's OK to feel anxious about replying to important emails, but that I should be frank with the sender about needing more time.

"If your issue is with a particularly problematic person or it's that the issue requires more work, you should still respond immediately with a specific time at which you'll get back to the person."

I try this tactic, writing back right away to someone who asks me for editing advice, "Awesome! I'll take a look and get back to you by 5 p.m." In practice, I'm doing the same thing I always do — shelving it for later — but something about directly telling the person that I'm working on the task and creating an actual deadline for myself makes it feel more imperative. Later, I do get back to her (before 5!).

I do think part of my email problem stems from the sheer volume of messages that inundate most of us daily — at one job I averaged about 200 per day — and the fact that almost every email interface is slow and time-consuming. Person-to-person online discourse has been long been shifting away from email toward apps and chat services, most of which are cleaner, faster, and harder to ignore than the clunky Jenga tower that's become most of our inboxes. Statistics show that my friends and I are already old-fashioned for sending emails back and forth; a 2011 Pew survey found that only 6% of teens exchange emails daily. More companies are embracing employee chatroom apps like HipChat and Slack that also function on mobile in order to cut down on the ubiquitous inbox avalanche problem. (I know I'm personally much more likely to respond quickly to a Slack ping on my phone than to any sort of email.)

As workplaces shift to these new chat apps, maybe soon I'll dread them as much as I sometimes dread my actual inbox. But for now, IM notifications and texts feel more personal, a little bit more gamified. Email feels like an old can I have to keep kicking down the road.

The consequences of ignoring your overflowing inbox are often mild. If people really need to get in touch with me, they will! It's 2015 and everyone knows email sucks. But I think ghosting on email feeds a larger relational debt. For senders, the sting of the boomeranged message feels inherently personal. Is she ignoring me because she thinks I'm a nuisance? Did she decide my essay sucked so monumentally bad that she's too busy crying into the Google Doc to write back? Here's a tip from one email flaker to another: Cure your delinquency now, because if you tick off enough people, the only thing sorrier than your "delay!" will inevitably be you.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.